It looks very much like we are at the dawning of another 18C-type campaign, directed from the battlements of Holt Street. The Murdoch forces have found a new enemy to attack, and are again about to waste thousands of journalistic hours and forests of newsprint on a delusional crusade, all the while depicting themselves as victims.

The appointment of GetUp deputy chair Carla McGrath to the Australian Press Council (APC) has prompted News Corp to indulge in the same style of overkill that elevated Bill Leak to imagined martyrdom and painted Gillian Triggs as a she-devil.

The pattern for these write-to-kill campaigns has become tiresomely predictable. It takes the editors at News less than 24 hours to go from mild outrage to all-out war.

On Friday, reporters for The Weekend Australian were assigned to ring around a selection of figures likely to give them quotes supporting the newspaper’s anti-APC line on the McGrath appointment. In the same edition they also ran:

  • a comment piece by legal affairs writer Chris Merritt that used the concocted controversy as an excuse to take a swipe at Fairfax and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) union;
  • a pompous editorial threatening that unless they rescinded McGrath’s appointment, the future of the council itself was in peril; plus
  • a couple of anti-APC letters to the editor just to keep the pot boiling.

But less predictable in all this was the position of the MEAA’s CEO Paul Murphy. He willingly joined the mob calling for McGrath’s head, telling The Weekend Australian “we don’t believe it is appropriate for someone to sit on the Press Council who also holds a senior position in such a politically active organisation”. (And a union such as his — which has a representative on the APC, is a member of the ACTU and affiliations with the ALP — isn’t a “politically active organisation”?)

Murphy may well come to regret aligning himself so quickly with the News Corp camp. He should expect to be contacted shortly by some of the more forthright MEAA loyalists among the hundreds who have been — or are soon to be — made redundant by News. Their dues pay his salary, and they are likely to have more sympathy with the politics of GetUp than those of their previous employer.

[Aww, the widdle Austwawian doesn’t wike the new Pwess Council! Diddums]

As with The Australian’s long and unsuccessful campaign to repeal 18C, the core of the paper’s position is illogical. Press regulation, for them, can apparently only be fair if it is conducted entirely by people who believe that the press is doing a wonderful job. So yesterday, as a test of their oft-professed support for free speech, I sent The Australian this letter to the editor on the subject:

It is puzzling why The Australian and the media union are so concerned about the appointment of GetUp! deputy chair Carla McGrath to the Australian Press Council. She will be just one of 24 members. 

As the APC website confirms, nine of these are “nominees of media organisations, including all the major publishers of newspapers and magazines as well as the principal union for employees in the media industry”. In addition, a further four are independent journalist members.

Despite these conditions on their selection to the Council, nobody questions the integrity of the 13 industry representatives in adjudicating public complaints about the media. We assume that, like judges and the police, they can be trusted to separate their personal views or professional allegiances from an obligation to make impartial assessments based on the facts in each case.

It seems hypocritical to assume that Ms McGrath will be any different.

Did they publish? Don’t be silly. But they did find space today (despite six pages of London carnage coverage) to report former APC chair David Flint’s condemnation of the McGrath appointment. “The whole point of the Press Council”, he told The Australian, “is for the media industry to have confidence in it and its judgments. That will only happen if perceptions of political conflicts of interest are not there.”

Flint has had some experience on conflict-of-interest issues. As chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority inquiry into the notorious cash-for-comment scandal, he eventually stood down and resigned after Media Watch revealed that he’d written laudatory letters to Alan Jones, one of the radio jocks under investigation. Flint denied that his admiration for the broadcaster would have had any influence on the ABA’s deliberations. Few bought it.

More interesting, at least for this old student of the media’s performance, is to ponder the wellsprings of what has become an ingrained petulance and persecution paranoia in the News Corp papers. Five of their major mastheads now say they have joined The Australian’s “boycott” of the APC. What a remarkable coincidence.

So how is it that an organisation that controls around 70% of its mass communications market can keep claiming to be “bullied”, or that it is being “muzzled” by some sinister green-left elite? (In his blog, Andrew Bolt described the McGrath appointment as “sinister”.) From where does this almost hysterically defensive mind-set come?

The answer, like most things within News Corp, is that it comes from the top down.

Rupert Murdoch has a deep resentment of the old-money media establishment, and Fairfax in particular. He suspects they all look down their noses at him as an uncouth, much-married opportunist — a parvenu prepared to do or say anything to protect and further his commercial interests. He’s right, of course — but so are they.

This chip-on-shoulder attitude rubs off onto Murdoch’s minions. They see any perceived or even potential criticism as an affront to their dignity. They remind us, endlessly, how vital the media are to our democracy, yet anyone who might hold them genuinely to account must be destroyed. Which is why The Australian and most other News Corp outlets won’t rest until McGrath resigns, or is dumped from the Australian Press Council. The principle of free speech has its limits at Holt Street.

Peter Fray

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